Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Can we really teach diplomacy?

Published on 28 May 2008
Updated on 05 April 2024

This is a provocative question for a Foundation that aims to teach diplomatic skills. Yet it is a question that crossed my mind as I was preparing a series of teaching modules on Climate Change Diplomacy.

We teach administration of diplomacy – the humdrum tasks of setting up a diplomatic post, getting organised, ensuring accountability and administrative processes and reporting, networking both at home and abroad. Rights and obligations, as under the Vienna Convention, are analysed, practices and customs explained.

We teach the ins and outs multilateral processes – how multilateral diplomacy organises itself at a conference, or how it interacts with international organisations. The proper diplomatic etiquette and the formal and informal rules of procedure are outlined. Specialities are highlighted – as appropriate.

We teach diplomatic structures – the multifarious plenitude of international organisations, their links and respective responsibilities, or the institutional rules under which they operate.

We teach the outcomes of diplomatic work – the treaties, agreements, understandings, the rights and obligations hereunder, and how they are administered, or made to evolve along the trajectory set out in the basic instruments.

We teach the language and the jargon, so as better to understand the deeper meaning of the counterpart’s words. While diplomacy of yore aimed to communicate to insiders, now multiple stake-holders and audiences are addressed – public diplomacy has emerged.

In a post-modern world of complex networks and means of communication we teach efficient sourcing, organisation of information as well as its distribution.

The darker underside of diplomacy shall be mentioned passim – from spying to corruption, profiling of counterparts, or manipulating of people, press, and public opinion – for this important component on diplomatic practice is not acknowledged in academia.

But do we really teach diplomacy?

Are we able to explain to young diplomats why some negotiations succeed and other fail? Some fail for contingent reasons – wrong tactics. Are we providing them with enough ‘lessons learned’? Others fail because conflicts in values that underlie a negotiation have remained undetected and unresolved. Failure is due to lack of ‘common ground’ where compromises may be struck. The failure is then strategic. Are we able to teach diplomatic strategy?

The case of Climate Change Diplomacy might illustrate my point. Two contingent elements have driven the onset of the negotiation:

The success story of the CFC Convention in mitigating output of these gases. The negotiation was (as such things go) straight-forward, and the outcome (so it appears today) satisfactory. Implicitly this model was chosen as a viable precursor for scaling up to the more complex issue of mitigation of Greenhouse Gases (GHG).
Faced with a ‘global problem’ the ‘logical’ or technological approach seemed to be one of aiming for a ‘global’ mitigation solution – in order to avoid the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (as described by G. Hardin[1]).
The current state of Climate Change Negotiations does not bode well for its future.

At the tactical level the ‘scaling up’ is foundering because it intertwines inextricably past and present in an acrimonious finger pointing exercise over GHG emissions – what are the lessons learned?

At the strategic level it focuses on just one – a collective – solution, ignoring or underestimating other, albeit less perfect but possibly more practical, approaches as well as adaptation. The economist R. H. Coase[2], however, had long made the case that all possible alternative approaches should be assessed pragmatically.

Garrett HARDIN, in his famous ‘The tragedy of the commons’ argued – frpom theory – for strict and compulsory birth control policies, claiming that mankind would not possibly stabilise its population unless forced to do so through mutual coercion. Forty years later it looks as if he is being proven wrong. An inchoate mix of pro-active policies (China) as well as wealth and education effects is taking us there – belatedly I’ll admit, imperfectly and haphazardly. We did not develop a ‘coherent and comprehensive set of policies’, as experts would have insisted on. ‘Good enough’ policies emerged, disjoined, incoherent, and absurd in part, though in the end cumulatively effective. Had we all heeded Hardin’s suggestion and sat down in ’68 to repeal the UN Charter of Human Rights passage on family planning – and gone for a world-wide treaty on mutual coercion… where would be now?

More fundamental, however, is the issue underlying Hardin’s text. He argues, from the outset that, for certain problems: “…to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.” The underlying issue (what he describes as the ‘tragedy of the commons’) is one of situational ethics. Though one may argue – at the limit – that all ethic is situational (we’d condone the killing of a tyrant, don’t we?), some behaviour is not bad per se, only when everyone does it – like pollution. While we know how to deal with non-situational ethics (“Though shalt not kill” possibly being a good example), it is difficult to achieve a consensus in other cases, when in addition the novel situations creep on us surreptitiously.

An added problem is sensationalism in press and public. Even if we were to fulfill all of the Millennium Goals by 2015, humanity would have witnessed 250 million deaths from poverty-related causes[3]. We seem to be forgetting these goals as we focus political and entrepreneurial attention on climate change that may or may not displace as many million people over the whole century. True, climate change will exacerbate poverty problems, but given a choice, a direct approach might be far more effective than a circuitous approach through GHG mitigation.


At its best diplomacy is all about discovering/creating ‘degrees of freedom’ in inter-state relations: turning obstacles into solutions by destroying preconceptions and pre-ordained conceptual frameworks – the egg of Columbus comes to mind. The rest is mechanics.

So my questions would be:

How do we teach diplomats to recognise, and possibly favour, ‘good enough’ policies rather than aiming single-mindedly for a ‘theoretical’ and unachievable best?
How do we teach diplomats to recognise, understand, and name core issues in a negotiation, rather than remain mired in process?
How do we teach diplomats to have a sense of proportion, and priorities?
For the current approach in education is to ‘think locally’ – to provide quick and ready technical fixes (down to the mini-course via internet), and let the ‘invisible diplomatic hand’ take care of the rest. This approach is certainly useful in many practical and humdrum situations. At the cutting edge of ‘big issues’, however, it is bound to fail – at least in the relevant short run. The balancing of benefits and costs of globalisation would be such a big issue; another is the uneasy compromise between cultures in an ever integrating world; and certainly the biological future of our planet.

In a world that praises the quick fix, the sound bite, and the successful spin, deep and wide understanding is needed to solve the issues on which our long term survival depends. How are we to teach this to our diplomats?


[1] Garrett HARDIN (1968): The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162:1243-1248
[2] Ronald H. COASE (1960): The problem of social cost. Journal of Law and Economics 3: 1-44.
[3] Thomas POGGE (2008) : Growth and inequality : understanding recent trends and political choices. Dissent.

Link of original post

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog